EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR’S NOTE: Roberta Gilbert, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice and author of Connecting with Our Children: Guiding Principles for Parents in a Troubled World (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999. 231 pages).
>>WILSON: How does “systems thinking” impact the leadership of a local congregation?
GILBERT: The church leaders I have worked with say things like “This has changed the way I approach everything!” They often mention meetings as an example. They claim their churches are working more efficiently and running less anxious since they began training themselves to “think systems.” It shows leaders the way to work on the management of self in any relationship. When that happens all the relationships work better and the whole group goes on to a higher level of functioning, beginning at the top.
>>WILSON: Pastors are notorious overfunctioners. How does such a pastor transition into a healthier model of relationships?
GILBERT: Seeing the posture in self is the beginning. Once I see where I am in relationships, I am in a position to do things differently. Often the pastors complain that their congregations want them to do everything and are unwilling to do anything themselves.
But they don’t see how they themselves are contributing to the problem by doing/thinking for people in ways the people should be able to for themselves. Once they get that figured out, we begin to see changes. But the congregation has been “trained” to certain expectations, so the process will not take place overnight.
Also, there may be a long pattern of overfunctioning, beginning in the family where the pastor grew up. We will usually see this not only in the individual, but also in the generations of family life. If so, it will be most useful to take a look at that and begin to do that differently–i.e., start to function as an equal there.
That is a most powerful type of work to undertake. But again, it doesn’t take place overnight. And most people will need coaching over time with the process.
>>WILSON: If anxiety travels through a family and impacts children, what can parents do to create healthy children?
GILBERT: That is why I wrote “Connecting With Our Children.”
There is so much we as parents can do to be better parents. We can become aware of the paths and patterns anxiety takes in our families. We can take responsibility for it in self, rather than passing it on to someone else.
So much anxiety that is passed on to our kids really originates in unresolved problems between the two parents. If they will begin to manage their relationship differently, there will be less anxiety to spill over to the kids, resulting in their having problems of various kinds.
Many families are cut off from their family of origin. If they begin to work on those relationships, the whole family, including the children, benefit. Where society and the parents’ morals are at odds, parents can define themselves–say where they stand and what has worked in their own lives.
One of the main benefits parents can provide for their children is to stop worrying about them. I often tell parents that worry is hostile behavior and to stop being hostile to their kids. They look at me as if I were from Mars. But some of them take me seriously. The results in the kids are wonderful. I could go on, but that is why I wrote a book. I can’t really say it all here.
>>WILSON: What is the difference between an overfunctioning and underfunctioning parent?
GILBERT: Overfunctioning and underfuctioning usually refer to how the parents relate to each other.
But it is possible to see a parent who is overinvolved/overfunctioning with a child. He or she tries to make all the child’s decisions, do things for the child that the child needs to learn to do for self. Sometimes it appears that the parent is living vicariously through the child.
Single parents are at risk for this I think. An underfunctioning parent is not interested or doesn’t seem to have time for a child. There are no guidelines, expectations or boundaries set. Some kids will do okay with this but most will either run wild or be an overfunctioner, trying to parent the parent, who may seem to need it. Sometimes this parent may have an addiction or a mental illness.
>>WILSON: Can you help us define the idea of differentiation of self?
GILBERT: We would need a whole book to do it justice. But briefly, the concept of differentiation of self has to do with emotional maturity. Some kids of 16 are quite emotionally mature. Some 60-year-olds are very immature in their approach to life. The idea shows us how people are not equal in this, but vary a great deal. It also shows us what the next step up would look like, how I might be a better version of me.
In general, people with higher levels of differentiation will do better in life. People with lower levels will do less well over all.
>>WILSON: What would you like to see more of in local churches? What would you like to see less of in churches?
GILBERT: I’d like to see more teaching of the Bible. I’d like to see pastors, just as parents, when led of God, not afraid to say what they really believe, not what they think people want to hear. When this happens, people listen.
Of course, I believe if all pastors were trained in Bowen family systems theory, it would enhance their leadership immeasurably. Pastors I work with get very enthusiastic about what the training has done for them as leaders and how it has affected their churches.
I’d like to see less denial. I think we as a society are in denial. When the state health officials of Georgia had a meeting for parents about an epidemic of syphilis in a high school, only around 60 parents showed up. Normally 600 were in attendance. I think pastors, churches and Christian leaders need to take the lead in getting heads out of the sand as to where we are and where we are headed.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.